In January 2016 when I watched actress Rachel Bloom accept the Best Actress Comedy/Musical award at the annual Golden Globe Awards I thought here’s another “hip” show I’ve never heard of that the notoriously fickle Globes are recognizing and never thought about it again. More recently a friend and I were perusing Netflix and watched the first two episodes which were astutely funny and surprising. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a traditional sitcom in the sense that it is over 40 minutes, had some darkly humorous overtones, oh yeah and it’s a musical sitcom. As with any great musical when emotions exceed reality characters launch into the surreal singing original songs, often with choreography, that are genius formally and as character devices.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was an idea hatched by Bloom with Aline Brosh McKenna and Marc Webb. Though there have been musical series on network television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW) most are forgettable and/or asinine. Cop Rock anyone? Anyone? About a decade ago shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Psyche, had musical episodes but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does not treat the musical format as a novelty. It’s intricately woven into the blueprint of the series and fortunately employs gifted singing actors including Broadway actors Donna Lynne Champlin and Santino Fontana.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally developed by cable network Showtime. For whatever reason the show shifted to the CW making it more accessible to a wider range of audiences. The show’s premise (humorous summarized in a brilliant Emmy-nominated theme song) is that Rebecca is a successful New York lawyer whose happiest memory is dating Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) in a summer camp as teenagers. She is miserable and ruins into him on the streets of New York. After a brief exchange he mentions he is leaving New York to live in his hometown of West Covina, California. Impulsive, desperate, and ready for a change Rebecca decides to quit the firm and move to West Covina. Despite being Harvard educated and about to make partner her divorced parents haunt her as does the reality that the real world she’s trained for is not quite as fun as camp. Embarrassed by her motives she pretends she is in West Covina on a whim which sets her up for some dramatic situations throughout the season. She immediately encounters people in Josh’s social circle and she and her co-worker develop a series of ridiculous schemes, often patterned after romantic comedies, to win Josh over. The problem for Rebecca is that Josh is already in a serious long-term relationship with the vain, unpleasant Valencia.
As the season plays out you get a nuanced understanding of each character. Josh is a happy-go lucky type but he is a suspended adolescent in many ways, and beneath the surface lies uncertainty about his career and relationship. Greg (played by Santino), Josh’s best friend is a dark character who is drawn to Rebecca and grows increasingly frustrated with her playing second fiddle to her emotions for Josh. Greg is intelligent and perceptive but family issues have retarded his progress. Her co-worker and friend Paula (played by Champlin) commands respect at the law firm where they work but is isolated at home with distracted kids and an inattentive husband. Supporting characters include Rebecca and Paula’s boss Daryl (Pete Gardner) whose divorce leads him to other revelations, and Josh and Greg’s friends “White Josh” (David Hull) and Hector (Erick Lopez).
Other cool things about the show: The cast is genuinely multicultural, including Indian-American, Filipino-American (Josh is Filipino-American), and Latino characters. Diversity is also integrated into the supporting characters and extras, meaning it actually resembles California. There is also some sexual diversity, including the rare bisexual character, and ongoing integrations of religious cultures in the show. Tonally, the show has a sense of humor about itself and its characters but there is genuine drama informing the comedy making it that much funnier. Finally there are sublimely ridiculous moments like an arbitration hearing that is suspended by a judge when Rebecca accidentally sends a text to Josh. A hair metal band battle emerges over whether it’s a “Textastrophe” or “Textmergency.”
Musically the show is masterful at pastiche. I can’t think of any TV series that has employed hip-hop so cleverly including spoke-sung raps about winning over parents, the burden of large breasts, and a battle between two self-identified Jewish American Princesses. You also get a peppy mid-tempo pop tune in the style of Huey Lewis, several jazzy tunes, including the Emmy nominated “Settle for Me,” a bombastic heal-the-world style song sung with a children’s choir, a boy band parody, and a torch song with multiple crescendos among others. Almost every song has a tongue-in-cheek meta-dimension. The songs are not only knowing send-ups of popular genres, but also comment on television itself. Television reached a golden era in the late 1990s-mid-2000s and networks and cable are trying to compete with brilliant shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent. That a smart and innovative program airs on network television is a welcome change from stale line-ups filled with crime procedurals and bland melodramas.
Broadway musicals, and their cinematic offshoots, are a distinctly American genre that defined popular music from the mid 1920s-1960s. Cast albums regularly topped the sales charts in the 1950s and 1960s, popular singers across genres sang the best Broadway melodies, showtunes were on the radio regularly, and singing actors and actresses were mainstays on television variety shows. On Broadway musicals became increasingly more expensive to stage, audiences lost their interest in film musicals in the 1970s, and audiences divided their musical tastes more diffusely than ever in the late 1960s onward. As a result few musicals, aside from megahits like Rent or films like Frozen, spawn hit songs and reach the broader public. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed hip-hop musical Hamilton has won a slew of awards, spawned a popular cast album and is being filmed for public television. Whether it results in crossover songs seems unlikely given the subject matter. Still bravo to Miranda for taking a chance, and bravo to the CW for airing the best musical outside of Broadway. The show is up for several Emmys for songwriting and choreography (airing in September) and the second season returns to air in October.
COPYRIGHT © 2016 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.